Tennessee Williams(March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983)
Thomas Lanier Williams III (March 26, 1911 – February 25, 1983), better
known as Tennessee Williams, was a major American playwright who
received many of the top theatrical awards. He moved to New Orleans in
1939 and changed his name to “Tennessee,” the state of his father’s
birth. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Streetcar Named Desire
in 1948 and for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. In addition, The Glass
Menagerie (1945) and The Night of the Iguana (1961) received New York
Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. His 1952 play The Rose Tattoo received the
Tony Award for best play.
He was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in the home of his maternal
grandfather, the local Episcopal rector. The home is now the Mississippi
Welcome Center and tourist office for the city. Williams’ middle name,
Lanier, indicates his family’s Virginia connections to the artistic
family from England, and earlier from Italy.
By the time Thomas was three, the family had moved to Clarksdale,
Mississippi. At five, he was diagnosed with a paralytic disease. It
caused his legs to be paralyzed for nearly two years but his mother
encouraged him to make up stories and read. She gave him a typewriter
when he was 13.
His father Cornelius Williams was a traveling salesman who became
increasingly abusive as his children grew older. The father often
favored Tennessee’s brother Dakin, perhaps because of Tennessee’s
illness and extended weakness and convalescence as a child. Tennessee’s
mother Edwina Dakin Williams had aspirations as a genteel southern lady
and was somewhat smothering. She may have had a mood disorder.
In 1918, when Williams was seven, the family moved again, this time to
St. Louis, Missouri. In 1927, at 16, Williams won third prize (five
dollars) for an essay published in Smart Set entitled, “Can a Good Wife
Be a Good Sport?” A year later, he published “The Vengeance of Nitocris”
in Weird Tales.
In the early 1930s Williams attended the University of
Missouri–Columbia, where he joined Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. His
fraternity brothers dubbed him “Tennessee” for his rich southern drawl.
In the late 1930s, Williams transferred to Washington University in St.
Louis, Missouri for a year, and finally earned a degree from the
University of Iowa in 1938. By then, Williams had written Cairo,
Shanghai, Bombay!. This work was first performed in 1935 at 1780
Glenview in Memphis.
Tennessee Williams found inspiration in his problematic family for much
of his writing.
Williams lived for a time in the French Quarter of New Orleans,
Louisiana. He moved there in 1939 to write for the WPA. He first lived
at 722 Toulouse Street, the setting of his 1977 play Vieux Carrй. The
building is part of The Historic New Orleans Collection. He began
writing A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) while living at 632 St. Peter
Street. He finished it later in Key West, Florida, where he moved in the
1940s. He lived in a separate building at the home of a family named
Black. Mr. Black was an Episcopal minister. George Black, the son,
became one of his gay partners, and they were close for many years, even
after George and his family moved to Miami. It has been suggested that
this Mr. Black was the inspiration for the film John Q.
Tennessee was close to his sister Rose, a slim beauty who was diagnosed
with schizophrenia at a young age. As was common then, Rose was
institutionalized and spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals.
When therapies were unsuccessful, she showed more paranoid tendencies.
In an effort to treat her, Rose’s parents authorized a prefrontal
lobotomy, a drastic treatment that was thought to help some mental
patients who suffered extreme agitation. Performed in 1937 in Knoxville,
Tennessee, the operation made Rose incapacitated for the rest of her
Williams never forgave his parents. Her surgery may have contributed to
his alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of
amphetamines and barbiturates often prescribed by Dr. Max (Feelgood)
Jacobson. They may have shared a genetic vulnerability, as Williams also
suffered from depression.
Williams’ relationship with Frank Merlo, a second generation Sicilian
American who had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, lasted from
1947 until Merlo’s death from cancer in 1963. With that stability,
Williams created his most enduring works. Merlo provided balance to many
of Williams’ frequent bouts with depression and the fear that, like
his sister Rose, he would go insane.
Tennessee Williams died at the age of 71 after he choked on an eyedrop
bottle cap in his room at the Hotel Elysee in New York. He would
routinely place the cap in his mouth, lean back, and place his eyedrops
in each eye  His brother Dakin and some friends believed he was
murdered. The police report, however, suggested his use of drugs and
alcohol contributed to his death. Many prescription drugs were found in
the room. Williams’ lack of gag response may have been due to drugs and
Williams’ funeral took place on Saturday March 3, 1983 at St. Malachy’s
Roman Catholic Church in New York City. Williams’ body was interred in
the Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. Williams had long told his
friends he wanted to be buried at sea at approximately the same place as
the poet Hart Crane, as he considered Crane to be one of his most
???????$??$???????a?, Walter Dakin, an alumnus of the university. It is
located in Sewanee, Tennessee. The funds support a creative writing
program. When his sister Rose died after many years in a mental
institution, she bequeathed over 50 million dollars from her part of the
Williams estate to Sewanee, The University of the South as well.
In 1989, the City of St. Louis inducted Tennessee Williams into its St.
Louis Walk of Fame.
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